Government’s short courses trial was ‘fiasco’, says Birkbeck v-c

Trial ahead of LLE failed because of ‘utilitarian’ course offer while ‘top university’ prestige harms credit transfer prospects, says leader

July 6, 2023

The Westminster government’s trial of short courses ahead of the launch of England’s lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) was a “fiasco” because it took a “tremendously utilitarian approach” to the courses it would fund, while the attachment of “top universities” to prestige is a block on credit transfer, according to a university leader.

David Latchman, vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London, made the comments during a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on the LLE, which will give people access to loans worth the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over the course of their working lives.

Under the trial, run by the Office for Students for the government, institutions were able to advertise short courses eligible for loan funding from June 2022, with 102 courses on offer across 22 institutions.

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But in September 2022, the government confirmed that just 12 applications for loans had been received from prospective students.

Professor Latchman said that he was “very supportive of the LLE”, and that while implementing it was “a very difficult task” it had “the potential to be a revolution…and put lifelong learning at the centre of learning post-18”.

“The devil is entirely in the detail,” he continued on the LLE. “And we have to face the fact that the pilot…has been a total catastrophe. Very, very few people have applied to study the courses in the pilot, where for the first time you could get funding for short courses as a loan.

“Does that mean we should abandon the LLE? I think absolutely not. We should look at why the pilot was a fiasco. And the pilot was a fiasco because it started with a tremendously utilitarian approach: ‘We are only going to fund these very, very few areas that we the government think are a good idea and not fund anything else.’

“The first lesson from this is, if you’re going to have flexibility, if we’re going to have the LLE, you’ll have to have student choice. It doesn’t matter whether a student wants to study history of art or wants to study cybersecurity. That needs to be supported within the framework.”

The pilot was also spread across a large number of universities, and few universities will want to put short courses “front and centre of [their] offer to students”, said Professor Latchman.

“So what we are going to need is a coalition of the willing in institutions – in which, of course, I’d place Birkbeck, but many others as well – who really want to do this and are prepared to take the risks of doing this,” he added.

There is a potential danger in starting modular provision, in which universities “run the risk of cannibalising [their] degrees”, he continued.

So the “government has to look to how it supports this”, said Professor Latchman. “How are universities incentivised to participate in this?”

Discussing the need within the LLE to allow students to transfer their credits if they move from one institution to another – as many mature students are likely to do as they move around the country for work – Professor Latchman said, “none of this is going to work unless it mimics the flexibility people have in their lives”.

The Department for Education, he went on, has “always skirted around” the credit transfer issue because it “knows very well that universities don’t like it: that a top university – we won’t mention the Cambridge word – might not want to [accept credit for] something that’s been done in a university that has slightly less prestige. So at some point, if this system is going to work, it really has to work in terms of everybody trying to work together.”

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